The Age of Erasmus by P. S. Allen


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Page 3

Of Rudolph Agricola we know more than of the others; his striking
personality, it seems, moved many of his friends to put on record
their impressions of him. One of the best of these sketches is by
Goswin of Halen (d. 1530), who had been Wessel's servant at Groningen,
and had frequently met Agricola. Rudolph's father, Henry Huusman, was
the parish priest of Baflo, a village four hours to the north of
Groningen; his mother being a young woman of the place, who
subsequently married a local carrier. On 17 Feb. 1444 the priest was
elected to be warden of a college of nuns at Siloe, close to
Groningen, and in the same hour a messenger came running to him from
Baflo, claiming the reward of good news and announcing the birth of a
son. 'Good,' said the new warden; 'this is an auspicious day, for it
has twice made me father.'

From the moment he could walk, the boy was passionately fond of music;
the sound of church bells would bring him toddling out into the
street, or the thrummings of the blind beggars as they went from house
to house playing for alms; and he would follow strolling pipers out of
the gates into the country, and only be driven back by a show of
violence. When he was taken to church, all through the mass his eyes
were riveted upon the organ and its bellows; and as he grew older he
made himself a syrinx with eight or nine pipes out of willow-bark. He
was taught to ride on horseback, and early became adept in
pole-jumping whilst in the saddle, an art which the Frieslanders of
that age had evolved to help their horses across the broad rhines of
their country. In 1456, when he was just 12, he matriculated at
Erfurt, and in May 1462 at Cologne. But the course of his education is
not clear, and though it is known that he reached the M.A. at Louvain,
the date of this degree is not certain. He is also said to have been
at the University of Paris.

Of his life at Louvain some details are given by Geldenhauer (d. 1542)
in a sketch written about fifty years after Agricola's death. The
University had been founded in 1426 to meet the needs of Belgian
students, who for higher education had been obliged to go to Cologne
or Paris, or more distant universities. Agricola entered Kettle
College, which afterwards became the college of the Falcon, and soon
distinguished himself among his fellow-students. They admired the ease
with which he learnt French--not the rough dialect of Hainault, but
the polite language of the court. With many his musical tastes were a
bond of sympathy, in a way which recalls the evenings that Henry
Bradshaw used to spend among the musical societies of Bruges and Lille
when he was working in Belgian libraries; and on all sides men frankly
acknowledged his intellectual pre-eminence as they marked his quiet
readiness in debate and heard him pose the lecturers with acute
questions. By nature he was silent and absorbed, and often in company
he would sit deaf to all questions, his elbows on the table and biting
his nails. But when roused he was at once captivating; and this
unintended rudeness never lost him a friend. There was a small band of
true humanists, who, as Geldenhauer puts it, 'had begun to love purity
of Latin style'; to them he was insensibly attracted, and spent with
them over Cicero and Quintilian hours filched from the study of
Aristotle. Later in life he openly regretted having spent as much as
seven years over the scholastic philosophy, which he had learnt to
regard as profitless.

From 1468 to 1479 he was for the most part in Italy, except for
occasional visits to the North, when we see him staying with his
father at Siloe, and, in 1474, teaching Greek to Hegius at Emmerich.
Many positions were offered to him already; gifts such as his have not
to stand waiting in the marketplace. But his wits were not homely, and
the world called him. Before he could settle he must see many men and
many cities, and learn what Italy had to teach him.

For the first part of his time there, until 1473, he was at Pavia
studying law and rhetoric; but on his return from home in 1474 he went
to Ferrara in order to enjoy the better opportunities for learning
Greek afforded by the court of Duke Hercules of Este and its circle of
learned men. His description of the place is interesting: 'The town is
beautiful, and so are the women. The University has not so many
faculties as Pavia, nor are they so well attended; but _literae
humaniores_ seem to be in the very air. Indeed, Ferrara is the home of
the Muses--and of Venus.' One special delight to him was that the
Duke had a fine organ, and he was able to indulge what he describes as
his 'old weakness for the organs'. In October 1476, at the opening of
the winter term of the University, the customary oration before the
Duke was delivered by Rodolphus Agricola Phrysius. His eloquence
surprised the Italians, coming from so outlandish a person: 'a
Phrygian, I believe', said one to another, with a contemptuous shrug
of the shoulders. But Agricola, with his chestnut-brown hair and blue
eyes, was no Oriental; only a Frieslander from the North, whose cold
climate to the superb Italians seemed as benumbing to the intellect as
we consider that of the Esquimaux.

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